"For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause, almost everybody accepts."
That’s the closing quote to David Einhorn’s quarterly letter for the 1st quarter of 2014. Fully loaded with social bubbles and burrito gas, it is vintage Greenlight Capital – self effacing and straight up:
“Our longs were modestly profitable, our shorts lost a bit more than we made on our longs, and macro lost a little. The net result was a small loss in a market where some indices were up a little and others were down a little.”
In the March-April performance period, down a lot more than a little is how I’d characterize some of these social media and biotech bubble stocks. Having spent a lot of time with hedge fund investors, I don’t think Einhorn’s view on some of these balloons losing 90% of their value is anywhere in the area code of consensus either. Make no mistake, lots of hedgies are long these things.
Back to the Global Macro Grind…
There is a lot more than a little hedge fund supply in the marketplace today. HFR (Hedge Fund Research) confirmed that in Q1 of 2014, hedge fund assets under management hit a new peak of $2.7 Trillion. Not ironically, as hedge fund assets under management peak, performance starts to underperform a little too (Q1 2014 was the worst performance quarter for the industry since Q1 2008).
This was one of the main reasons why I was bearish on the US stock market in Q1 of 2008 (when Hedge Fund AUM peaked last time). Too many mo mo funds were long of the same names with the same catalysts. Back then it was an LBO “takeout” bubble. In 2000, it was a tech bubble. Today you can tell me how many funds are long Yahoo (YHOO) for the Alibaba IPO, but that looks a little bubbly too.
To be clear, being long of bubbles can be cool (as long as they don’t start to go down more than a little). Once they start to go down a lot, there’s this thing called draw-down risk that most hedge funds aren’t allowed to let ride anymore. Having toiled as a PM at some major US hedge funds in my day, I can tell you the only long-term strategy to survival is not getting smoked when everyone else does.
Einhorn rarely gets smoked.
Technically, a hedge fund should be hedged. But the super secret reality about the 2 and 20 business (or whatever Stevie was running at 5 and 50 back in the day) is that a lot of hedge funds get smoked, not when the market goes up – but when it goes down.
Yep. I wrote that. Been there, done that too. I’ve made every mistake you can make.
So, are you a consensus hedge fund or one like Greenlight who is willing to give up a little on the short side in order to make a lot? This common quest for the almighty alpha (on the short side) is called #asymmetry. And I like it.
Enough about what I think about this profession – I’m only a battered and bruised product of it. Here are some of the favorite quotes my teammates pulled from Einhorn’s quarterly letter. In terms of both style and substance, they are timeless:
- “The corollary to ‘twice a silly price is not twice as silly’ is that when the prices reconnect to traditional valuation methods, the de-rating can be substantial.”
- “Our criteria for selecting stocks for the bubble basket is that we estimate there to be at least 90% downside for each stock if and when the market reapplies traditional valuations to these stocks.”
- “There is a huge gap between the bubble price and the point where disciplined growth investors (let alone value investors) become interested buyers.”
Yes, it’s my entire team’s job to read, write, and learn about how the best players in this game think. The alternative to that would be depending on what I think (which would easily be the most dangerous thing for our business over time).
So, if you run a hedge fund and you’re having a tougher time than last year out there, don’t get upset with me writing about it. Think about the why and learn/do something about it.
Accepting that little bubbles are going to start to pop bigger ones (like, say, the US stock market’s all-time high price) is a process, not a point. While I agree with David that “what is uncertain is how much further the bubble can expand, and what might pop it” I don’t think the “what” is a silver bullet that can be legally obtained.
Having survived (made $ at a hedge fund in down tapes - 2000, 2001, 2002) the Tech Bubble, The LBO and Oil Bubbles (2008), and The Gold and Bond Bubbles (2011-2012), what I have learned about risk managing these suckers is quite simple:
First, they start to make lower-highs. Then the volume on down days eclipses the volume on the bounces (up days to lower-highs)… then bearish catalysts start to pile up… then what was happening slowly starts to happen more than a little – it happens all at once.
Our immediate-term Global Macro Risk Ranges are now as follows:
Brent Oil 108.48-110.79
Natural Gas 4.62-4.79
Best of luck out there today,
Keith R. McCullough
Chief Executive Officer